Impending Layoffs Lead to Lapses in Safety, spring 2001

You're hearing murmurs about layoffs around the water cooler. Middle managers are disappearing right and left. What do you care about most during such a stressful time? Do you spend your days working your fingers to the bone in an effort to keep your job? Or do you concentrate on following ergonomics standards and safety regulations designed to prevent workplace injury?

If you're like most people, concerns about safety go out the window when layoffs loom. According a recent study, workers are more likely to be injured at companies undergoing reorganization than companies that are stable.

The study followed employees at two large U.S. food processing plants. Workers at the first plant had gone through a recent layoff of an entire shift of workers, in preparation for a rumored plant shutdown. The second plant reorganized, eliminating the swing shift and replacing it with a night shift. The rescheduling left many unable to arrange childcare and in fear of losing their jobs.

Researchers questioned the workers immediately after the shift changes, and six months after the reorganization. They found that the employees most concerned about losing their jobs paid the least attention to work safety and had more injuries to the wrist, hand and arm--the most common injury associated with that type of work.

"It makes sense," says psychologist Tahira Probst, the study's lead author. "There's only a certain amount of cognitive resources you can apply to pay attention to quality and how much you produce."

When a company reorganizes, she says, "you spend more time at off-task activity, paying attention to the rumor mill, and less time and energy on other aspects. You see people taking shortcuts."

What was surprising about her study, says Probst, was there was not a direct correlation between knowledge of safety procedures and compliance. "Knowledge only affects compliance if there's a motivation to comply," she notes.

Too often, organizations place more emphasis on production. When threatened with possible job loss, employees try to increase their output and overlook basic safety standards, she explains.

Experts suggest that companies can alleviate the stress of reorganization with better communication, keeping employees involved in the planning process and soliciting their ideas. Failing to communicate, they say, only leads employees to fill in the communication gap with gossip and innuendo, increasing the overall stress level and causing (sometimes) unnecessary worry.